When it comes to assembling a group of poems into a coherent whole, there are a few ways that seem the most effective.
1. Choose one structure, whether poetic or spatial.
ex. In Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters joins all of the disparate voices by their location (speaking beyond the grave AND their location in the city).
Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets joins all of her poems with the same form: the sonnet.
Christopher Cessac also tackles this in Eros Among Americans. The title of every poem in this chapbook is the name of an American city with Eros or Greek roots, such as Romance, Wisconsin. Each poem is automatically located in both the Greek tradition and the actual city.
2. Choose one motif, theme, or image.
ex. James Allen Hall tackles this incredibly well in his Now You’re the Enemy. Each poem builds on an increasingly terrifying and painful image of his mother as destructor and self-destructive.
Ken Chen in his Juvenilia, winner of the 2010 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, uses growing up as his major theme.
3. Choose an overarching motif, theme, or image and populate the work with it in a more subtle way.
Anthony Carelli’s Carnations tackles this wonderfully. While the title “carnations” seems free from connotation, the theme is much larger within the work. One of the first poems in this chapbook mentions that a woman approaches the speaker and says, “There’s not enough God in your poems.” Then, the rest of the poems have overtly or subtly religious titles, but the poems themselves are far from religious. Against the title, things like anonymous sex and pie-baking suddenly become religious rituals.
As I work on compiling my first chapbook (and my thesis for the completion of my MFA degree), I find myself attracted to #3. Many of my poems follow a “dark farm” motif, and yet I have poems like this one published by Connotation Press that don’t necessarily connect emotionally or thematically to the rest of my work. So, much work is to be done (I mean, I do have 30 more poems I need to write). I’m still working on pinpointing that central image or theme I want to rework into the poems that don’t quite fit into the whole, while still being true to whatever theme or motif I choose. Subtlety is also always more attractive to me. I think if I tried my hand at what James Allen Hall did, I’d end up beating it to death in a way that’d be more bloody than poetic.